I doubt it

iMonk on “The Coming Evangelical Collapse.”

photo by Johann Rousselot

My opinion, with personal reflections:

Michael Spencer (iMonk) predicts that evangelicalism will collapse. The imminent demise of evangelicalism has been predicted by the sage, well, pretty much since the Reformation. If the Enlightenment couldn’t quite do it, then surely it would be Industrialism. Scratch that. Okay, then surely Darwinism, or maybe Existentialism. Well, add to that — the Sexual Revolution. Okay, it will surely be the Information Age. Or not. So, now what is needed — well, the Church itself is too stupid to keep going. So, ah ha, evangelicalism will collapse.

I know that doesn’t do justice to Mr. Spencer, who has frequently provided judicious thoughts on the contemporary Church. Nor does it do justice to the seriousness of the “secularization thesis,” namely, that free thought and advanced markets will produce a skeptical society (and, indeed, Denmark does exist). Nonetheless, whether or not evangelicalism will collapse depends too much (and ever has) on the work of the Holy Spirit, making predictions (optimistic or pessimistic) worthless. Add to that, the openness of evangelical Protestantism, its creative energy and adaptability flowing from Free Church principles, further makes predictions seem rather like a binding of God’s electing purposes. But, putting theology aside for the moment, I am especially skeptical of Spencer’s predictions for rather subjective reasons: my group of friends from high school.

Mr. Spencer’s reflections on the Church are, not surprisingly, reflections of his own experiences and those in his acquaintance (and the peculiar sort of people, heavily invested, who read theology blogs). This is not wholly illegitimate, even though I wish he would take a wider survey and root himself in the Church’s history (inclusive of Israel!) when making judgments. So, in the interest of providing a wider survey, here is the evangelical church as I have known it, in my own microcosm:

I went to a small private Christian school from k-12. It was operated by a large independent Baptist church which, though independent, would perfectly fit within conservative Southern Baptist thought and culture. My group of close friends from 8th grade until 12th grade was the same: about eight of us, rather active in school (academics, sports, government, honor societies, etc) and never second-guessed the Christian mission of the school. Now, if you watch movies like Saved! or documentaries like Jesus Camp, you would think that my quintessential evangelical upbringing was rather nutty, at best, or abundantly hypocritical, at worst. If you read blogs like iMonk’s or the Heidelblog (Dr. Clark) or listen to the White Horse Inn, then you probably think that we were shallow and cultic. I myself have even made charges of “intellectual sectarianism.” Whatever legitimate criticisms that must be made, there is one indisputable fact when looking at my group of friends from high school: we confess Christ as Lord and Savior and seek to follow Him. That is no small thing. Among these friends, I have one friend who is now a missionary in Nairobi, Kenya; another friend is a youth pastor in South Carolina; another friend is the senior pastor of a small church he founded on the coast of North Carolina; and another friend is a music leader at a church in South Carolina. And that’s just those who serve in the Church. Another friend is a law student at UNC who does the hard job of integrating his faith and secular work. We are all in our mid-20’s.

Why do I mention these friends. Because they are what I think of when I think of the Church. These are the guys I went to chapel twice a week with, to Bible classes three times a week, to Christian camp every August, to Sunday services, to Wednesday night worship, to Saturday soup kitchens and passing out tracts. This is the Church, imperfect but loved by God. This is the Church that will exist until the parousia. This is the Church for whom Christ is ever High Priest. This is the Church that the gates of hell will not prevail against, even as a latitude in forms (including the “American evangelical”) is unpredictable.

Advertisements

8 comments

  1. Superb post and superb riposte. I don’t come from a culture with an evangelical identity strong enough to even deserve mention but the key point is the one you make- the rise and falls of our traditions are not waves that can be predicted but the act of the Spirit.

  2. I will point out that while the “secularization thesis” has points of truth it has come upon hard times of late; mainly because of the enormous contradiction that is America. As Fr. Neuhaus pointed out in one of his last essays for First Things:

    “As frequently discussed in these pages [of FT], secularization theory is now challenged on many fronts, and not least of all by Peter Berger, once one of its most influential proponents…. The interesting question is not why America is so religious but why Europe is so secular.”

    My point is that those who take this secularization theory at face value should be aware that it is being challenged, even by those who once advocated it strongly.

    Kevin, I also think the witness of your friends bear out the willingness of young adults to live a life contrary to contemporary trends in culture. We see this in the Catholic Church as well – the JPII generation of priests and laity. Practicing Christians such as these may be the minority, but that has been the case for many decades now; and is, in some sense, likely to have been the case in every generation since the Apostolic age.

    The Church will go on as she always has.

    Although, it should be pointed out that Michael Spencer is not predicting the collapse of the Church, but rather evangelicalism as we know it. And that may be valid, if bold, prediction. The face of Christianity has changed throughout the centuries. The very ethos of Christianity is different today than it was, say, in the days of Thomas Aquinas. We can also say that the various creeds within Christendom have changed since the days of the Reformation too. While we hold to our same creeds in principle, the ethos has changed along with the tides of culture.

  3. By “creeds within Christendom” I really meant to say the various groups (broadly speaking – Catholicism, Lutheran, Reformed, etc.)

    The way I originally worded it was open to misinterpretation.

  4. The history of Christianity is a very compelling argument. Your personal reflections, Chad, are yet another layer of that history. The faith will prevail, no matter what.

  5. zoomtard,

    Thanks, and good summation.

    Mark,

    Yes, and I would say that “evangelical” (although I was using it as a Protestant descriptor) entails a lot of the same principles that can be found at work in the Catholic Church, as indeed it is the same Holy Spirit at work. As for secularization, I agree basically with Fr. Neuhaus, as long as we do recognize the reasons behind why, e.g., Denmark is so secular, and not just take it for granted that America and the Global South (largely thanks to American missions) will be more religious. The fundamental idea behind the secularization thesis is true if we add a qualifier: free thought and economic outlets for “free” expression will for many serve as an adequate replacement for religion (which is just another way of repeating Jesus’ statement about the rich going through the eye of a needle).

    Nannette,

    I must come across like a “Chad” ’cause I’ve been called this before…along with “Kyle” and “Kent.” I would add to Church history, the history of Israel and the prophets, which has long been an inspiration for Protestants faced with “1500 years of continuous Church tradition,” which is not quite true but true enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s